Groups press for inland water bacteria advisories

Paddling on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in the George Washington National Forest. (Virginia.org)

Environmental groups are again raising alarms about levels of fecal bacteria in Shenandoah Valley waterways from livestock and poultry operations and calling on state agencies to do a better job of warning inland swimmers about the risks, as they do at 46 coastal beaches.

Citing Virginia Department of Environmental Quality data, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper said 72 percent of monitoring sites along the Shenandoah River and its tributaries — covering a large area that runs from Berryville to Stuart’s Draft — had E. coli levels that the federal Environmental Protection Agency would consider unsafe for swimming.

“However, Virginia posted no signs warning rafters, kayakers, or swimmers about health threats — as it does regularly with swimming advisories on ocean beaches and in saltwater areas,” the groups said in a statement.

The number of waterway sites sampled for bacteria by state officials also fell, with an average of 70 places on waterways in the Shenandoah Valley sampled between 2015 and 2018, but only 35 in 2019 and 25 in 2020, the groups said in a report last week.

“Virginia should strengthen its bacteria standards and post swimming advisory signs in freshwater areas used by rafters and swimmers that are contaminated with fecal bacteria, especially now that rafting and tubing season is starting up on the Shenandoah River,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former EPA official.

“People might be upset by warning signs, but the signs would increase public pressure on state lawmakers to invest the funds and effort needed to reduce pollution — for example, by requiring farmers to fence their herds of cattle out of the Shenandoah River.”

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Monitoring for bacteria and issuing advisories in Virginia is complicated. The Virginia Department of Health issues the beach swimming advisories when bacteria concentrations hit certain levels through a grant from the EPA, said Margaret Smigo, VDH’s waterborne hazards program coordinator. The DEQ monitors surface water quality and determines if waterbodies are defined as impaired per the federal Clean Water Act.

“No such federal or state-funded program exists for inland waterbodies,” Smigo said, adding that officials tried and failed to secure additional state money for an inland water quality advisory program. “Due to the interest and concerns expressed by public and nonprofit groups for improving the information available on inland beach water quality, VDH has made several attempts to secure funding as recently as 2018, for the 2019-2020 state fiscal budget year. Unfortunately, to date, such efforts have not been successful.”

Greg Bilyeu, a spokesman for the DEQ said the agency’s bacteria data are not intended to be real-time indicators of swimming conditions but rather identify recreational waters in need of a clean-up plan and track long-term trends. He added that the State Water Control Board has adopted new EPA water quality criteria that require more intensive sampling over a shorter period of time and rejected a contention by the Environmental Integrity Project and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper that the agency had lowered standards.

“We’ve been very transparent about the challenges, spending a lot of time engaging with folks including the Riverkeeper network, but unfortunately, DEQ simply does not have the resources to collect the number of samples needed to assess the new EPA criteria that have been the basis for almost all Virginia water quality standards,” he said.